Embracing the light in the music of Ori and the Will of the Wisps
Composer Gareth Coker on how his close relationship with Moon Studios was instrumental in the emotive sequel to Ori and the Blind Forest
For almost as long as Moon Studios has been shaping the adventures of a small, bright forest spirit named Ori, the music of Gareth Coker has been underscoring his every movement.
Coker was a part of Ori and the Blind Forest when the game was a prototype, when Moon Studios founder Thomas Mahler found him "out of the blue" before the game was even pitched to Microsoft. He was asked to compose for what the studio had so far, with the promise that if Microsoft accepted the pitch, he'd be fully on board.
The sequel, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, launched this week. So that pitch seems to have gone well for everyone involved.
"We can have a really tight relationship between music and animation. That's a very old-school Disney thing"
Coker's way of working, which he says is unique in the industry, has proved vital for both Ori games. He compares the design and story of the games to a Pixar movie in the way they aim to evoke emotions in the player, which means that music is a crucial component extremely early on in development.
"Most composers for a game are going to come onto a project and they're just going to be handed the cutscenes and told, 'Write the music for this," he says. "But I write music to very rough animatics and storyboards, and that allows me to write a piece of music that flows. So sometimes my music isn't exactly the same length or timed perfectly to what's happening in the animatic.
"But then after I've done a piece of music that feels musically right, but does follow the base outline of the animatics, we'll send it back to the animation team. And then they'll get in and do all the detail and do the animation to the music.
"This is very, very luxurious. I've never had this on any other project. But what it means is, especially in a game which is mostly wordless, we can have a really tight relationship between music and animation. That's a very old-school Disney thing that we're trying to do. It's something that's extremely important to Thomas [Mahler]. I'm very lucky to work with someone who is a big believer in the power of music. He doesn't believe it should just be underscore.
"I don't think it would be a bad thing to say that we like to hit the audience over the head sometimes with music. We're pretty direct. We're maybe a little bit on the nose. But look at the game -- the whole game is a little bit on the nose. I think that we want people to feel something when they play, and I think most games and a lot of films actually are almost afraid of doing that.
"We're maybe a little bit on the nose. But look at the game -- the whole game is a little bit on the nose"
"When it comes to gameplay, I learn the speed of the game. Especially in a platformer, we place such heavy emphasis on how good the movement is. But learning the speed is incredibly important for me to decide what general speed the music is going to be.
"I think every game has a core tempo. I'm going to use Doom as an example. Doom's gameplay has a tempo, and has a feel, and it's fairly consistent. The music has that core identity and core feel that is prevailing in every single piece of music in the game. When you play the game a lot, it starts to provide answers for you."
This is far easier to do with scripted sequences, such as cutscenes, Coker says. Both Ori games, however, tend to play a bit differently. While there are cutscenes, much of the Metroidvania structure ideally has the player in a state of platforming flow when they're moving from one obstacle to another. That flow is interrupted somewhat by combat, but Coker goes out of his way not to emphasize the video gamey-ness of battles.
"If you heard a combat track every time you were in and out [of combat], it starts to feel gimmicky, or it reminds you that you're playing a video game -- 'Look, the music's changing, you must fight now'.
"I actually want to communicate to the player that you don't have to kill everything. The only time we play combat music in Ori and the Will of the Wisps is when you have to kill something to progress. We're a game that emphasizes movement, and we want to tell the player that it's okay to skip the monsters, but the chances are most players will take them out anyway."
"If you heard a combat track every time you were in and out [of combat]... it reminds you that you're playing a video game"
In Will of the Wisps, though, that got more complicated. Ori and the Blind Forest, while it included combat, bypassed traditional boss battles in favor of chase or escape sequences, where Ori rapidly platformed his way out of a sudden, pursuing threat. Ori and the Will of the Wisps introduces boss battles for the first time, but combines them with chase sequences in the style of its predecessor.
That, combined with more complex and changing environments from the first game, naturally means Coker is composing a lot more music for Will of the Wisps.
"This is a huge generalization but it's just my overriding feeling," he says. "[Other games] might have one piece of music per environment and that's it. You'll have the winter music and the desert music and that's absolutely fine. But if you're in there for a while, you're used to the loop and it has an identity."
Coker uses a technique he refers to as "switches" throughout the levels of Will of the Wisps, where he'll keep the musical theme the same but make slight adjustments to volume, pitch, instrumentation, tempo, or other elements as the player moves through the environment and makes changes. One early example takes place in a large room where Ori has to flip several literal switches to proceed, but each switch rotates the room 90 degrees. With each mechanical switch, Coker triggers a musical switch.
However, Coker tries to avoid having these switches happen while the player is in the "flow" of platforming, so as not to distract or break up the mood.
"If I was to poke a criticism of my work on the first game, it's that it's almost too reliant on that singular theme"
"If you are within each environment, you will be able to recognize each music per environment, you'll still have that basic feel," he says. "While you're in the winter area, the music will change within the winter area. But we'll all still feel like the winter, the winter suite of music or the winter symphony of music, and then you go to the desert and you'll have the desert suite of music. So it's both a macro and micro approach and it required far too much brain power and I'm glad it's done.
"But again, I wouldn't have been able to do that if I hadn't been brought on to the project as early as I was because I needed to see how the game would be mapped out, and finding those switches because we have more switches than what I'm using."
Those who have played Ori and the Blind Forest will easily recognize its most prominent, main theme. It does a lot of emotional heavy lifting, and it reappeared at the tail end of the game's E3 2017 reveal trailer -- naturally sparking a very particular audience reaction. But now, in the sequel, Coker admits he had to be a bit more careful with that melody.
"If I was to poke a criticism of my work on the first game, it's that it's almost too reliant on that singular theme," he says. "But the great thing about that now is if you've played the first game, you know what that theme is. So I can use it less in the second game. The term I've used to describe the theme for the second game is the 'golden bullet'. I know that when I fire it, it will hit every single time. So I only use it when I absolutely need it."
Throughout our conversation, Coker offers numerous thoughts on game design and platforming that aren't explicitly related to musical composition. But his in-depth knowledge of intricate facets of Ori's design reveals just how involved he's been on a technical level, and how seemingly small gameplay nuances either influenced or were influenced by his work.
It's an approach that he acknowledges wouldn't work on every other game, offering Mortal Kombat as an example of an IP where a composer already has a pretty good idea of what's going to be happening and how the game needs to feel without being deeply engrossed in a prototype.
"I think the most important thing for a studio to do is to find a way to work with a composer that you feel most comfortable with," he says. "Because if the studio is comfortable with the working method, then the composer is going to be comfortable with the working method. Obviously it's a major commitment to work on projects for this long, but having that freedom in the beginning allows me to hit the accelerate button at the end.
"I don't think it's good enough anymore to have one [music] track per level. I think gamers, especially in the last few years, are very, very aware of music in games, and especially when it's not implemented well. I think like five to ten years ago, you could get away with adequate implementation, but now you notice in a game or feel it in a game when the implementation isn't quite right. It's important to advocate on the studio side to have a composer who can work within your workflow."